Laurie Woolever: ‘Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography’

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Laurie Woolever. Photo by Helen Cho

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes writer Laurie Woolever, whose new book is ‘Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography’ about the late writer and television host Anthony Bourdain. Woolever was Bourdain’s assistant and collaborator before he died in 2018. She is also the co-host of the podcast ‘Carbface for Radio.” Woolever tells The Treatment that Bourdain wasn’t always the brash, outgoing person people saw on television. She says he was both deeply cynical and yet romantic. And she says that as open as he was about his flaws and his addictions, there were parts of himself that he held back from the public.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Welcome to the treatment, the Home Edition. My guest is Laurie Woolever, a pretty accomplished writer and observer of the culture who worked with Anthony Bourdain as his assistant. She is the author of the book, "Bourdain: the Definitive Oral Biography,” and she also co-hosts a terrific podcast called "Carbface for Radio." You really use the book as a way to kind of chart his emotional growth. Was that the way you'd set out to do it?

Woolever: The initial idea with the oral biography was to just simply tell the full story of a person who told a lot of his own story, but if you've read "Kitchen Confidential," which many millions of us have, the story touches down on a couple of points in his youth, and then really jumps right into the kitchen years, understandably, and that's really where the meat of his story was, up until the point of publication in 2000. So there are a lot of pieces of his life story that he hadn't told, that were not these carefully crafted stories that he had been telling about himself for years and years. So in order to create a fuller picture, it was really just: let's do a chronological treatment from beginning to end. What became apparent very quickly in starting the interview process is that it really was a story of one man's emotional growth, or in some cases, lack thereof. 

I have a lot of respect for Tony. He was a friend and a mentor and my boss for a long time. But as you'll see, if you read the book, there are a lot of people who noticed that he had some pretty big emotional gaps and some pretty big places where he just never grew up in a way or had what some call a very beautiful, romantic view of the world, but in some cases, almost a childlike expectation of the world that often led to a lot of disappointment.

KCRW: I first met him in 2003, when he came on to do the show, and I was shocked at how nervous he was, and he sort of got that under control as I spent a bit more time with him. I always thought he was this guy who went from being somebody who pretended to be a worldly sophisticate, but was really a scared kid, to somebody who became a worldly sophisticate, who was still a scared kid.

Woolever: One of the most surprising things that people are taking away from the book is this look behind the scenes at a guy who, if you only knew him from reading his writing and watching him on television, he was the most charismatic, cool, funny, confident, easygoing guy. And he could certainly be that, and he could certainly perform that, and in the right company, he truly was that guy. But he also was, as you know, oftentimes very nervous and very anxious. He had a lot of social anxiety. 

I think that being a cook really suited him because you're with your crew. You're not out for public consumption. You're always around people, but you know who they are, and everyone's got a defined role within the hierarchy of the kitchen. And then being a writer, it was also a way for him to manage that social anxiety. You can write yourself into whatever role that you want to play, and any way in which you would like to present yourself to the world. And then being a television presence, you've got the work of highly talented producers, cinematographers and editors that are really taking the best 46 minutes of 12 or 20, or 40 hours of television. And so again, making you look the most confident, the coolest, the funniest, the most charismatic, and cutting away all of the parts where you're self-doubting, or your jokes don't land, or you're just not feeling it. So he was already a very interesting person, just as something to be consumed on the screen or on the page, but the real 360 human was even that much more interesting and that much more complex.

KCRW: I was thinking about that point in the book where Eric Ripert talks about when the two of them went skiing, he said that Tony was at best, kind of an OK skier, and Eric was much more expert, but when the show was cut together, it came across as the complete opposite.

Woolever: That's the beauty of having a show with your name on it and people in your service: they can make you the better skier. He really was in charge of how his image was portrayed over close to 20 years of television. He was willing to be vulnerable. He was always honest. But he was always in charge of how he came across and what message he was sending in the final edit. He was really, really involved in the edit in a way that sometimes was really tough for these guys that worked for him, the directors, the producers, the editors themselves. Tony was super opinionated and sometimes very, very critical. To guys who have been doing this their whole lives, as a lot of them said, it was frustrating. It was difficult, and then more often than not, he was actually right. 

KCRW: Reading the stuff with Morgan Fallon and Nick Brigden, and hearing them talk about what he was like, and especially near the end, charting him going from one obsession to another from jiu jitsu to Asia Argento, and saying he would just hold forth on these things forever, and they just wanted to hear him talk about something else.

Woolever: Yeah, if you were not a jiu jitsu practitioner, it truly did not matter. Tony would just talk to you about a match he had watched or one that he was training for or some new move that he had learned or some gruesome injury that he had had, and he could make a lot of things interesting, but after a while, you just gotta change it up a little bit. He was trying to get everyone around him involved with jujitsu, too, and he would pay for your first few classes. And, really, I think it probably helped a lot of people in their careers to be involved with jujitsu. It was never something that I was going to do for myself. But I did briefly make my eight year old son. I got him into jujitsu as a way to sort of be able to understand more of what Tony was talking about, in a way to kind of understand this world that was everything to him for a while.

This is something that I didn't necessarily see when he was alive, but he had lifelong addictive tendencies, and sometimes that was a very useful and worthwhile thing. Jiu jitsu arguably was one of the healthier obsessions. His body got very healthy; his mind was very focused, he was happy, he was around people doing something that allowed him to blow off steam, and come to work much more focused and happier. And then, of course, there were less healthy obsessions, among them, heroin, which he was very frank about in "Kitchen Confidential" and afterward, any number of other drugs that were interesting to him. There were times when the work became an obsession, and then of course, his romantic relationships. 

KCRW: There's a thing in him where the people he really liked, he wanted to see them do well.

Woolever: I can only speculate, but I think he was really grateful to whatever forces, and they were, I think, random forces, but also a lot of talent, a lot of patience and a lot of hard work that found him suddenly successful, suddenly financially solvent, maybe not quite a household name, but a suddenly very well known writer and television host at the age of 44. I think he was hugely grateful for that. And I think there was a kind of  paying it forward to the people around him. 

He knew what kind of a platform he had; he knew the power of his name and his voice. It didn't cost him anything, even if it did cost him something to lift up the people around him. He was very invested in helping people to get the attention that they might not have otherwise. It was always really just lovely to see and lovely to be on the receiving end of when he saw someone that he thought had promise and talent, that he was very, very willing to make connections and make introductions. It was really why he established his own book imprint Anthony Bourdain Books, which was an imprint of Ecco, which is itself an imprint of HarperCollins, so that he could offer the opportunity to the people that he met to tell their stories.

KCRW: All the stuff we've been hearing about him since his unfortunate death, the documentary deals with that sort of darkness he was capable of, but we don't get much of a window into that generosity, and also that need to not talk about himself. 

Woolever: Some people talk about this in the book. Eric Ripert talks about it, and a few others, that he had really beautiful manners, and this whole kind of brash, bad boy, kitchen pirate thing that was a facet of his persona, and certainly more so in his younger years. But underneath that he was a very well mannered, very considerate and elegant person who was raised by people for whom manners and good tastes were very important. So I think that was part of his kit of good manners: to do kind and generous things for people, but not to draw attention to it. I think he would have been mortified to have people talking about how generous [he was] and what a large spirit he had.

KCRW: I’m thinking about what his brother Chris was saying about their early life, about what their parents were about: trying to keep appearances and pretending they were one thing when they're really something else. 

Woolever: I think he learned from his mother at a relatively young age how to manage appearances and how to manage expectations and how to keep up with what the public expects. There's a lot of detail, really wonderful, interesting stories from Tony's brother, Christopher Bourdain, in the beginning of the book about how the family had a big beautiful house. The boys both went to a private school. They had this expensive, unusual imported British car that they drove, but the car was always breaking down, and they ran out of money to finish the renovation of the house. And the bill collectors were always chasing them about the orthodonture, or the school tuition. And so things weren't always what they seemed. 

Tony's mother very deeply hid the fact that she was Jewish. She hid it from her own children until they were into their teens. And they happened to see a document that had her real name on it.  Chris and Tony over the years uncovered all of these ways in which she had taken a step sideways from the truth about where she grew up, even to the point of obscuring the fact that she and Tony's dad, Pierre, were married in a synagogue. She had presented that they were married in a church. It was the time in the United States in the 1950s and '60s, when it still was a social liability to be Jewish. The deeper she got into the charade, there was less and less reason to come out of it. 

It's not explicitly shouted out in the book, but it makes a lot of sense that Tony would overshare in some ways and be very, very frank about who he was and what his life was like and then keep some things very, very private. And I think that to have his romantic troubles splashed across the front page of the European tabloids, and then potentially the National Enquirer was a very, very difficult prospect for him to consider.

KCRW: There are things about Tony that people wanted to keep to themselves. A lot of people felt they got some part of him that others didn't. And they kind of held on as a way of keeping a part of him with them, because he was so public. 

Woolever: I think these are conversations that I certainly would not have had, there were a lot of details and a lot of things that came to light after his death, that I think people would have kept to themselves. I think that there was this sense of protecting Tony. We were all kind of siloed from each other in some ways. When you're trying to maintain whatever the illusion is, if you know people aren't talking about you, then you can sort of keep your story straight. Not to say that he was lying all the time, but I think he showed the parts of himself that he wanted to to different people. 

There was always the sense of loyalty that he engendered in people, and that he made clear was very, very important to him that you be loyal. And in return, he was very, very loyal to the people around him. So I think part of that was no one wanted to be the person that was gossiping about Tony, because, God forbid it gets back to him. 

He loved spy stuff. And he loved subterfuge and he loved the Cold War history and the CIA. And I think he had a good time acting as a double agent or extracting information from other people or playing dumb and I think those are tactics that he continued to employ as he developed his television career. He loved gossip; he loved to know the backstory of other people's lives, so I think it was in everyone's interest to keep Tony's secrets for themselves, to protect him, and also probably to protect their own professional interests. 

So it really was only after he died that everyone felt more comfortable telling their stories. I'm sure there are things that people held back, and I don't begrudge anyone. And there were a few things that I know that are not in the book, because there is the sense of just wanting to protect him, remembering that he has living family. We do want to make a very full and complete and honest portrait of a man who would be the first to say that he was flawed, but every tiny little piece of dirty laundry doesn't necessarily need to be out there. I think that's a lasting legacy of his that you have to keep a little bit of something back.

KCRW: A word that comes up when people are describing him but I never thought applied to him, was cynical, except in this sort of Balzac way that inside every cynic beats the heart of a true romantic. 

Woolever: Someone says, I think close to the end of the book, that the world was never going to live up to his romantic expectations. And he was such a romantic, and he would get so enamored of things and so excited about the prospect of something, and it was very hard for the world to live up to that ideal. His Twitter bio was one word: enthusiast. Even though I think, when you sit down to think about and describe who he was, and what he put out into the world, he was also, of course, deeply cynical, and deeply jaded about most things, but to have that capacity to fall in love with a place, to be totally enamored of a dish or a person. 

There was a time when we were in Vietnam in 2014  and riding back after a pretty long and pretty intense shoot in this underground cave that people had lived in for years during the war with the United States. Really, really tough shoot, and we were just talking about different places he had been. And he was talking about how he had been in India recently and just describing the juxtaposition of the beauty and the deep suffering, and he just spontaneously started to cry. And I just was flabbergasted. I didn't realize he had that side to him that could be so moved by the memory of beauty that he would cry.

KCRW: The thing that you get at in the book is just a sense of exhaustion. In a lot of ways and in some fundamental way, lots of things changed for him, but things in a lot of ways had not changed for him, and he just seemed really worn down. 

Woolever: Yeah, very, very tired, and yet unable to walk away from the life that he had made for himself. That's 200 to 250 days of traveling a year. That's a huge amount of time. It takes a real toll on your body and on your mind. And he would talk a lot for years and years about how he wanted to try and do something different, and he just couldn't quite make the break. I think there was a level of addiction to that life. And I think there was a fear of what would happen if he did slow down, if you suddenly had to be in one place for any length of time? Would he be able to handle it? 

A lot of people ask me, What do you think he would have done during the pandemic? And in some ways, I'm glad he didn't have to make that decision or didn't have to suffer through sitting still. At the same time, he was somebody who was so interested in public health, he was interested in medical oddities. He wrote a book about Typhoid Mary. I wish that he would come back, and I could say to him, Dude, there's a pandemic. There's been a pandemic going on for almost two years. It would be so interesting to him. But yeah, it was absolutely exhausting: that life. 

He felt this burden of leadership. There's a chapter in the book to that effect, that he felt he had a burden of leadership that was real, that if he stepped off the train, and he stopped making television, and he stopped being that guy, what would happen to all the people who had been along with him for the ride for so long? The audience and the network, but also the people who had been working alongside him for so long. And the truth is, everyone would have been okay. And if we could have had the chance to say it's okay, get off the train, just take care of yourself. Any one of us would have said, that's fine. We'll go work with someone else, just for the chance to still have him around. But that's not how it played out unfortunately.



Rebecca Mooney